Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Universalist Christian meditation for All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls

Graves lit by candles in Sweden
Readings: John 17: 20-26

And selections from the writings of Dr George de Benneville (1703 – 1793)

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.

Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.

Our Sovereign Good is the Infinite and Everlasting Love, the only indwelling, all-embracing, undergirding and overshadowing spiritual reality, which is at once the source, the instrument and the object of its power.

He will restore all of His creatures, without exception, to the praise of His glory and their eternal salvation.

The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in colour, language and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love.

Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body.

The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. 

My happiness will be incomplete while one creature remains miserable.


Later this week we celebrate All Hallows EveAll Saints and All Souls. These are days when, in a variety of ways, our culture remembers the departed - both the faithful departed and also, particularly with reference to the popular festival of All Hallows Eve (Halloween), the unfaithful and even vengeful departed. To think about such a series of festivals, whichever way you spin it, we are required to consider the language of life after death for, even if these festivals are understood in solely imaginary and literary rather than in literal scientific terms, their power over us is based upon our culture’s long experience that somehow the departed do continue to have a certain kind of reality beyond the grave and are still capable of affecting our present lives.

This gives me the opportunity to challenge the all too common liberal view that religion is primarily (even solely) something concerned with ideas (whether believed to be false or true) that simply go on in a believer’s head. All too often I hear claims being made within our circles that one of liberal religion’s chief aims should be to persuade people to rid their minds of certain beliefs and ideas that the liberal has come to think are false and replace them, not surprisingly, with certain ideas and beliefs that the liberal thinks are true. The feeling in play here is that only when one has succeeded in removing supposedly false ideas and beliefs from one’s own or another’s head will that same person be restored at least to the possibility of living what the liberal believes is a genuinely good, rational and true life. The idea of life after death (and the language associated with it) is often believed to be one such “false” idea that should be replaced. My contention here is that belief in life after death should not be worried over as something either true nor false (this would be to let our words go on holiday - see this post) rather what is more important to do, and what we as a liberal church should be concerned about, is to see what is being done by a community or individual with the language of life after death.

That said, once upon a time attempting to ascertain what was a false and what was a true idea and belief was for our tradition a credible and reasonable way of proceeding. After all as a church we are very much a child of the Reformation and the Enlightenment and, taking our lead from the methods and experiences of the developing natural sciences which seemed so successfully able to discover empirically testable truths about the universe, we came to think that in the realm of religion the discovery of objective truths through the use of reason alone was also achievable.

But, to borrow a memorable line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “like a worm 'i th' bud” our rational search for real, objectively true facts of religion was, at the same time slowly eating away from within at objective truth’s beautiful, "damask cheek". By the beginning of the twentieth century the rational philosophical project had begun to reveal to some key philosophers and theologians in our culture that, at least in the matter of religion, there was probably no such thing as objective truth. In Nietzsche's still powerful words found in his notebooks of the 1880's our liberal religious culture as a whole came came to feel that in the sphere of religion “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

Not surprisingly this had a profound effect upon most religious liberals because, if you accepted Nietzsche's insight (and by and large our Western European and North American liberal religious culture did accepted it), it meant that even one’s own most strongly held religious and philosophical beliefs, including the one that there are no facts only interpretations are also only interpretations. With this realization the worm in the bud finally broke through objective truth’s beautiful, damask cheek and created for us what felt like a very unpleasant and unsightly wound - one which liberal religion is still trying (and, in my opinion, by and large failing) to come to terms with.

Basically speaking religious liberals have dealt with this wound in one of two ways - one accepting Nietzsche’s insight the other rejecting it. The first accepted it wholeheartedly but did so in a very ill-disciplined and highly uncritical way. The underlying optimism of this approach (and it was optimism and not anything approaching an educated hope) was that as widely different beliefs and ideas were mixed together in the liberal church there would emerge quite naturally a universalistic, liberal, non-specific, religious consensus. This has not occurred. In actuality far from it as the result has simply been the creation of a confused hyper-eclectic pluralism in which there really is only confusion. To be sure at times it has been an interesting, even very interesting confusion, but confusion it has remained.

The other approach has been to attempt to maintain or revive a kind of old-style sectarian liberalism in which the members of the church are encouraged to believe in a strong way that, actually, they still really do know what is true and false in religious matters. These churches tend to be committed either to a kind of naturalistic, even scientistic, humanist spirituality or to a kind of nineteenth-century rational liberal Christianity. Essentially this approach denies Nietzsche’s insight and it is one that has, of course, also been favoured by more conservative and even fundamentalist religious traditions.

But there is a third - post-modern - approach available to us as liberals which, even as it wholly accepts Nietzsche's insight that there are no facts only interpretations, doesn't then succumb either to a hyper-eclectic relativism or to the temptation to reassert old, simplistic Reformation or Enlightenment rational religious orthodoxies.

It can be summed up as being an approach which understands its own religious tradition and that of others not in terms of true or false beliefs and ideas supposedly going on in the heads of its members but rather in terms of what its members have actually done and still DO with these beliefs and ideas. Technically speaking this is an approach which tries to leave behind metaphysics and tries only to do phenomenology. As I often say to you, following Wittgenstein's lead, I am convinced that we must not look for the meaning of human ideas, faiths and beliefs in isolation but only in the context of lived forms of life (Kishik, David: Wittgenstein's Form of Life, Continuum, 2012 p. 55). This point allows me to return to All Saints, All Souls, to those three little words, “life after death” and to the form of life historically encouraged by our own church tradition.

Naturally, like all of, you I have my own personal views about the matter and they are ones about which I’m happy to talk to anyone should they ask. But - and it is a huge but - as a minister of a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition I am responsible to more than my own views and beliefs. One of our own theologians, John F. Hayward, in his book “Existentialism and Religious Liberalism” was “bold [enough] to counsel the leaders of the liberal church - the ministers and all laymen [and women] in responsible positions” that:

“Their own personal tastes and decisions relating to theological matters are unimportant compared to their duty as guardians of an ancient institution. They must make available to future generations that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen. They are also under obligation to broaden the conception of the heritage by relating the church’s life to non-biblical sources of spiritual insight. They are free to teach and celebrate more than the Bible; they are not free to teach and celebrate less.” (p. 114).

I take this advice with the utmost seriousness (not least of all because it was first offered to me by the Revd Frank Walker, the minister emeritus of the Cambridge Church where I am minister). Readers of this blog will know I try to fulfill my obligation to broaden the conception of the liberal Christian tradition in various ways but, in this address, it is found in my appeal to an important insight offered us by dear old Wittgenstein.

But what of my obligation to that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen?

Well, it is important to see that the extraordinary power of the liberal Christian tradition didn’t come out of nowhere but is continually rooted in the Biblically derived language of a divine, interdependent relational unity in which we felt there is to be found a universal restoration and salvation - our readings were but a small illustration of this position. So when here we remember All Saints and All Souls we really do mean ALL the souls and saints of humankind regardless of their own faith and beliefs. This is precisely what enabled us as a Christian community to take seriously, and be deeply respectful of, the differences that exist between people of different faiths and to be able to say, as de Benneville said, “We do not find these differences obstacles to love.” It is precisely this feeling that, over the four and a half centuries of our existence, has encouraged and inspired us to engage again and again in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue and countless campaigns for social justice and civil and religious liberty.

But the liberal power of this language of universal restoration and salvation can only continue to DO its vital work in our world - right here and right now - insofar as there is also available to us a language of hope which speaks of some kind of life after death. Why? Well, because again and again we see how as individuals and communities we fail to achieve the full and abundant life that we saw expressed in the person of Jesus - for us the paradigmatic example of the good life. Does this mean that whenever we have experienced a major failing in our own lives and efforts we are simply to be written off as eternally lost and worthless? Also, are the lives of those who have died and which seem to us to be profoundly incomplete and unfulfilled also simply to be understood as eternally lost and worthless?

As a liberal church tradition we have consistently replied to this with a resounding “No!” We have always been prepared to use a Biblically derived language of life after death to speak of a divine, interdependent unity to which, as St John said, all will, in time, come home and become, with Christ, completely one with one another and with God. In such a God nothing is lost, no one is forgotten and left unforgiven and unloved and it is this that (as individuals and as a community) gives us the hope required to continue to live our liberal form of life even through the darkest of days.

Now, some may wish to complain here that the foregoing lines speak only of (metaphysical) ideas going on in my head - but I demur. When de Benneville says that “Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body” I want to understand him as suggesting that whenever you live with a strong sense of belonging to some kind of divine, interdependent unity you cannot then meaningfully separate our language out from our bodies - language has no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body. Consequently, our language of life after death is best understood, not as set of abstract metaphysical ideas going on in our heads, but something as real and tangible as our very hands - an absolutely necessary part of an embodied way of being liberal and hopeful in this world NOW.

It seems to me that, as a liberal church, this language is as necessary to us as are our very hands. Without it we would simply not be able to preach (and try to live out) the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Service of Installation (Einführung) for Pastor Jochen Dallas in St.-Gallus-Kirche, Altenesch.

Jochen talking to us in the
Kapelle Am Deich (his second, smaller, church)
(Shortly after publishing the following blog post I gave an address on Remembrance Sunday directly connected with my visit to Germany. If you would like to read that please click HERE.)

This Sunday I was honoured to have been invited to take part in the Service of Installation (Einführung) of my friend and colleague Pastor Jochen Dallas as formally he took up his post in Lemwerder in Lower Saxony in St.-Gallus-Kirche, Altenesch. Jochen had, until July 2012, been the Pastor at the Deutsche Lutherische Kirche in Cambridge and we got to know each other through the local ecumenical network. Over the nine years he was here I came to value him highly, not only as an example of a fine, thoughtful, intelligent and warmhearted Christian pastor, but also as a friend and weekly companion in prayer. Needless to say I, and the twenty-eight members of his Cambridge and other East Anglian congregations (who are a delightful bunch) with whom Susanna and I travelled to Germany greatly miss his presence and that of his wife and son, Stephanie and Christopher but we all know that life must move on. We are all simply grateful that we were graced for a time by their presence among us and wish them well in their new home.

L. to r: me, Bishop Jan Janssen,
Jochen (with his back to us)
and Pastor Holger Harrack
Jochen asked me and another colleague, Pastor Holger Harrack, each to read two short Biblical lessons and then to offer another short reading of our own choosing as, along with the Bishop of the Oldenburgischen Kirche, Jan Janssen, we lay our hands on Jochen's head to induct him into his new ministry. I chose Philippians 4:5b-7:

The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

To be asked to do this for a close friend was, for me, a profoundly moving moment - a high point in my own religious journey.

At the reception afterwards in the Gemeindehaus.
Afterwards the round about one-hundred and fifty people reconvened at the local Gemeindehaus (church community centre) for a number of speeches and some splendid food. I took with me, not only the greetings of the Memorial Church (where I minister) but also the greetings of the ecumenical group in Central Cambridge and our gift was the promise of an always open door to Jochen, Stephanie and Christopher.

A splendid occasion that will, I am certain, stay with me for a lifetime.

Here are two links to local news reports of the occasion. They are in German, of course, but, should you have no German, if you use Google Translate then you'll be able to get the gist of them

Weser Kurier: Amtseinführung mit Gästen aus England

NWZ Online: „Erst kommt das Weh, dann der Mut“

Revd Andrew James Brown and Bishop Jan Janssen

Jochen and me at Binham Priory, Norfolk
in May 2012
Lastly, below are just a few photos of Bremen-Vegesack where we stayed during this wonderful weekend.

One small part of the Lürssen shipyards looking across to Lemwerder from Vegesack

Looking downstream on the Weserpromenade

Autumn colour in the Stadtgarten

Autumn colour in the Stadtgarten

The Grauer Esel (Grey Donkey) restaurant where Susanna and I had a lovely meal 

Various Stube at Vegesack Hafen

Various Stube at Vegesack Hafen

Looking upsteam and the Weserpromenade

Windturbine blades being shipped downstream from Bard Emden Energy

A whale's tail sculpture by the ferry

The Schulschiff Deutschland in Vegesack 

Bronze, full-size replica of a blue whale's jaw bone at Vegesack Hafen 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Autumn spin on the Viking Ian Steel out to Wicken Fen

If you've come here wanting to read last Sunday's sermon (A theology of the event - 14 October) please click here - but you might enjoy coming back to look at these photos later . . .

A beautiful day coincided with some time off and so I dusted off my old Viking Ian Steel (from 1956) and took a quick thirty-four mile spin out to Wicken Fen via Reach and then back along the Lodes Way. In the sun outside the cafe at Wicken I ate my cheese sandwich and apple accompanied by a splendid bottle of Atom Splitter beer. A perfect way to spend some of the day. Below are a few photos from the ride. Below these are a couple of photos taken last week in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.

Adventurers' Fen 

Adventurers' Fen

Windump at Wicken Fen

Bridge over Burwell Lode

Out in the Fens with the Viking Ian Steel 

Lifting potatoes on Burwell Fen
I had a word with the guys bringing in the potatoes and they said the quantity of the crop was down on last year. The ones in the trailer looked, however, lovely.

Crates near Lord's Ground

Near Lord's Farm

A heron near Lode
Outside the cafe at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the Botanic Gardens

The Sainsbury Laboratory in the Botanic Gardens

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

A theology of the event

On the evening after giving this address I took this
photo of the church just before our evening service.  

Readings: Matthew 9:35-36, Luke 17:20-21 and John Caputo's "A Theology of the Event" (found at the end of this post)


With the theme of harvest still very much in my mind during the week I read the short passage from Matthew we heard earlier (9:35-36) in which Jesus' primary motivations are revealed. We encounter here an expression of his desire to bring a life-giving Gospel (a good news) to the people by healing the sick and, as a shepherd to his flock, to show them how they might practice a form of life that could dispel their confusion and bring about in them a sense of real empowerment and genuine hope. Allied to this was a longer term hope that every person so healed, restored to clear thought and empowered would, in turn, become hope-filled workers able capable both of sowing the seed of the Gospel and of gathering in its abundant harvest.

Jesus' embodied expression of this hope has, of course, crossed generations and geography and I remain someone personally sustained by it but I felt the need for this hope particularly strongly this week. One early morning I sat at the table in the increasingly chilly kitchen getting ready for what I knew was going to be a long and difficult day of pastoral work (it’s worth adding that this is simply a statement of fact and not a complaint). I could have turned on the heating but well, like I'm sure many of you, for both ecological and financial reasons, the heating is only going to go on when it gets properly cold, until then a hot mug of tea was going to do. As my hands were being warmed by the tea the "Today" programme was informing me that British Gas was going to raise its prices by 6% - an announcement followed a day later by Npower raising their prices by 9%. One of the older people I was going to visit that day can already barely pay the current prices and I could already imagine their deep concern about this news. Hmmm. Without pausing for breath the newsreader continued to intone what turned out to be a very chilling litany: there were the ongoing shocking revelations about Jimmy Saville and the culture of silence at the BBC and within a number of hospitals, there was the announcement of an official inquiry following the shameful Police cover up at Hillsborough. Needless to say there were also reports about the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone, the continuing round of public sector cuts - especially in health care and social benefits - and the fear amongst increasing numbers of people who are facing either redundancy, significant wage cuts and the removal of long fought for employment rights. The list didn't end there of course – I’ve said nothing about the political, religious and economic situation in other lands - but here I'll spare you a continuation of the litany. Every government is rightly concerned when so many things like this begin to occur all at once and most of you will know that it was the British Prime Minister (between 1957-1963) Harold McMillan who, when asked to name the greatest challenge that faced any politician, replied “Events, dear boy, events.”

I mention this litany of events because not a day now goes by without someone speaking to me in my role as your minister and pastor who is deeply concerned or struggling significantly with the consequences of one or more of these events. Is it any wonder that when I re-read the passage from Matthew on that cold morning the question of how might I best bring before you the living hope of which Jesus spoke and which might gift us all a rich and satisfying life (John 10:10) arose alarmingly to challenge me.

Well, one thing is absolutely clear to me, any attempt to do this by making simple, even simplistic, abstract theological claims for the reality of God (or the truth and efficacy of a thing called the liberal Christian tradition which is the form of life on offer here) is highly unlikely to prove persuasive. For good reasons most of us here - including myself I might add - are deeply suspicious today of any pastor who, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever, says "just believe A, B, and C and do E, F, and G and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well". If you are in this church now, or reading this later on my blog, the chances are that you are someone who wants to follow something or someone whose authority you feel can be legitimated by some appeal to both to some kind of evidence and to your sense of reason. It is simply the case that none of you here are going believe anything to be true just because I tell you it is so and long may that remain the case. Which thought brings me to some points that need to be made about sheep and shepherds.

From an early Christian funerary monument
The first thing I want to remind you of is something about the word pastor. In the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) the Hebrew word "ro’eh" is used to describe the feeding of sheep. So, for example, in Jeremiah 3:15 we read "I [i.e. God] will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding." In the New Testament, the Greek noun "poimēn" and the verb "poimaino" are generally translated as "shepherd" and "to shepherd" respectively. It seems to me to be highly significant that, in John 10:11, Jesus called himself the "Good Shepherd" and that the earliest Christian images of Jesus show him not on the cross but as a living shepherd.

This seems to me important because, although as a human being I tend not, in general, to think of myself as being like a sheep, it is fair to say that I, and I would guess most of you do, at times, feel strongly the need for the living presence of a good shepherd in my life – especially when one is walking through difficult times that feel, as the hymn “The Lord’s my Shepherd” calls it, very much like “death’s dark vale”.

This causes me - as a pastor - to ask how, today, do we actually come to have the kind of knowledge and understanding of which Jeremiah spoke and which Jesus showed in his life upon which we are prepared to trust and act?

Well, as I’ve intimated, we are today for the most part willing fully to trust only those things of which we can have some meaningful and direct experience or for which we have access to other kinds of acceptable, empirical proofs. In the context of this present day culture my job as a pastor must include trying to find ways to show you something similar in the realm of the religious life. Which brings me to God because, which ever way I use this word, unless I have a lively sense that “The Lord (God) is my Shepherd”, that God “art with me” and that God’s “rod and staff me comfort still” then the word “God” is pretty much useless and revealed merely to be a disconnected wheel that when it is spun (i.e. whenever I use the word God in a prayer, a hymn or an address) it turns no real machinery.

So it’s vital to ask whether the word “God” – at least in my hands as a pastor – can be shown to be turning any real machinery? Like I said earlier just me saying to you that it does is insufficient. Evidence and direct experience is what you, is what we all, want. Consequently, as a pastor, the best I can hope to do is shepherd you to a variety of places and moments where I feel able and confident to point to something and, “Look there, that is what I mean by God.” All I can then do is hope that your own experience and evidence of those things will, in time, bring you to a point where you can say “Ah! I think I see what he’s getting at.”

Now this brings me back to John Caputo’s words we heard earlier (see end of this post) who, along with a number of other key modern theologians, has stopped trying to talk about God a super-being (an ultimate entity) which could only ever be theorised about and has instead begun to talk about and gesture towards understanding God as event.

So, running very quickly through Caputo’s five points in my own words:

Firstly, I do not understand God as something present but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present. So for me its not quite right to say Jesus is God (I encounter him as my brother, always-already a human being like me) but what makes him special to the liberal Christian tradition to which I belong is that he lived in such a way that we felt we saw that which we are minded to call God making itself felt in Jesus’ presence among us. This is why I point so regularly to the example of Jesus and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

Secondly, it is important to distinguish between the name “God” and the event that is astir in this name. When I use the word God here it I always try to attached it to events in which we see people called, as Micah summed it up (and as we sung in our second hymn) to do true justice, to love mercy, and to walk with God. This is why I point so regularly to any act of justice, mercy, love and the walking with others and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

Thirdly, I do not understand God as an ultimate thing, a super-being whose existence could be proved by either science or philosophy and theology because God is that which is astir in all things. This is why I often point to the interconnectedness of the universe, the natural world and its constant commingling, and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

Fourthly, I have been persuaded that, no matter how beautiful or venerable they are, whether they are Trinitarian or Unitarian, whether they theist or atheist, all human theories about God can and must always be deconstructed. These theories may, and often have had, some temporary ad hoc usefulness, but they must never be thought of as being themselves the event that they harbour. This is why I so often point with particular approval to living and always unfolding devolved, democratic non-institutional, non-denominational and non-doctrinal forms of religious community and say “Look There! That is what I mean by God!”

Fifthly, I understand God as event as something that is always calling me from afar – call it from "heaven" if you like – which is always persuading me into living a form of life committed to seeking more justice, more love, more mercy and a continued walking with each other and God. It is no wonder that to every earthly, coercive human power that wants to control and dominate others and nature God is indeed a dangerous memory and a new call to reform. This is why I constantly point to utopian visions of human organization, such as the kingdom of God or, and in my mind this amounts to the same thing, the republic of heaven, and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

But the limitation of even the best kind pointing of pointing (and this address is far from being that) needs to be acknowledged and so it is vital to deconstruct even what I have said to you today. Remember what Jesus taught: “One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs [or by your speculations]. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you [or within you]” (Luke 17:20–21).

This is because beyond all talk and all pointing in the end we are simply seeking to live a form of life in which God as the event of all life is a trembling, living presence within us informing us of what is required of us and which has the power to gift us a meaningful, rich and satisfying existence.

All I can say is that when, on a bleak and cold morning and I feel I am in, or very close to death’s dark vale, I find I have always been graced with the presence of genuine hope and so found the strength to go on. Is this hope and strength to go on a proof of God? No, but even after my deconstruction, I’m still called to point to it and say to you “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”

(After giving this address later that same evening the church and the manse were framed by a glorious rainbow - a traditional sign both of God being felt in what is present and of God's covenant with us. Proof of the truth of my words? Of course not! But, nevertheless, it still it made me want to point to the rainbow and it's position and timing and say - if only to myself - “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”)


A Theology of the Event 
From John D. Caputo’s essay Spectral Hermeneutics – On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event in After the Death of God by John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo (Columbia University Press, 2007, pp, 47–49).

One way to put what postmodernism means is to say that it is a philosophy of the event, and one way to put what a radical or postmodem theology means is to say it is a theology of the event. Obviously, then, on such an accounting, everything depends upon what we mean by an event, which, for the sake of simplicity, I describe as follows.

1. An event is not precisely what happens, which is what the word suggests in English, but something going on in what happens, something that is being expressed or realized or given shape in what happens; it is not something present, but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.

2. Accordingly, I would distinguish between a name and the event that is astir or that transpires in a name. The name is a kind of provisional formulation of an event, a relatively stable if evolving structure, while the event is ever restless, on the move, seeking new forms to assume, seeking to get expressed in still unexpressed ways. Names are historical, contingent, provisional expressions in natural languages, while events are what names are trying to form or formulate, nominate or denominate.

3. An event is not a thing but something astir in a thing. Events get realized in things, take on actuality and presence there, but always in a way that is provisional and revisable, while the restlessness and flux of things is explained by the events they harbour.

4. What happens, be it a thing or a word, is always deconstructible just in virtue of events which are not deconstructible. That does not mean that events are eternally true like a Platonic eidos; far from being eternally true or present, events are never present, never finished or formed, realized or constructed, whereas only what is constructed is deconstructable. Words and things are deconstructible, but events if there are any such things (s’il y en a), are not deconstructible.

5. In terms of their temporality, events, never being present, solicit us from afar, draw us on, draw us out into the future, calling us hither. Events are provocations and promises, and they have the structure of what Derrida calls the unforeseeable “to come” (à venir). Or else they call us back, recall us to all that has flowed by into the irremissible past, which is why they form the basis of what Johann Baptist Metz calls “dangerous memories” of the injustice suffered by those long dead, or not so long, a revocation that constitutes another provocation. Events call and recall.

Events are what Žižek calls the “fragile absolute” — when Žižek leaves off abusing postmodern theories he often serves up excellent postmodern goods — fragile because they are delicate and absolute because they are precious.

[. . .]

On my accounting, things take a theological turn in postmodernism when what we mean by the event shifts to God. Or, altemately, things take a postmodem tum in theology when the meditation upon theos or theios, God or the divine, is shifted to events, when the location of God or what is divine about God is shifted from what happens, from constituted words and things, to the plane of events.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Potting-sheds and perambulators: the revolutionary implications of the Gospel - A Harvest Meditation

Potting-sheds and a perambulator
on my friends' allotment
Readings: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

From Book One of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) translated by C. H. Sisson.

There is one simple point we have to start from:
The gods never made a single thing out of nothing.
Because, if one thing frightens people, it is 
That so much happens, on earth and out in space, 
The reasons for which seem somehow to escape them,
And they fill in the gap by putting it down to the gods. 
That is why, once we know that nothing can come from 
We are on the right track already and likely to see
How everything starts and goes in in ordered sequence
And nothing at all is merely the work of the gods.

Consider: if things could be made from nothing,
There would be no such thing as the cycle of generation,
You could breed men from the sea, and the land would 
All kinds of fishes and birds, and out of the sky
Herds of cattle come tumbling; wild animals would 
Turn up in deserts or farmyards without any reason;
You could not count on an apple-tree giving you apples,
But any sort of tree would produce any fruit. 
If everything did not have its seminal elements
How would we ever know what anything comes from?
But, as it is, the origins are determined 
And everything comes to the shores of light
The moment matter has reached the right point of 
No question of undiscriminating creation
When everything has its seeds within itself.

Besides, have you thought why roses come in spring,
Corn ripens in the heat, and the grapes in autumn?
It is because their seeds are so determined
And all creation happens when it must.
It needs only the season, and the vivid earth
As it were finds it safe to produce what it does.
If things came out of nothing, they would come from nothing,
Turning up at odd times in a random way;
They would have no natures to hold them to their course
Nor elements answering only to certain seasons.
There would be no question of interval after coition
Before the child appeared, if we came from nothing.
Young men would disconcertingly spring from perambulators
And full-grown trees appear in a flash from the ground.
As such things do not happen, but on the contrary
Everything grow and changes little by little 
And all growth follows the law of particular species,
It proves that everything’s made from its own material. 


Susanna's grandson on my shoulders
checking out the combine harvester
If you ask any small child today about harvest their response is more than likely to include a reference to a large combine harvester chomping up a crop of wheat in a huge field. If you do a Google Image search for the same word you will receive pretty much the same answer. But even if the combine harvester isn't your own default image of harvest something connected with a harvested field is likely to show up strongly in your imagination. Classic images of stooks, bales of hay or haystacks in a field readily spring to most people's minds.

But we know that harvest is far from being just about large cornfields, haystacks and huge combine harvesters. It is also about much smaller scale crops. In our readings we heard Paul's famous horticultural image found in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. However, the traditional translations keep the overall imagery on the larger side of life by speaking about us as being God's building. However, the former Baptist minister John Henson offers us a wonderfully downsized version of the same passage in his recent "Good as New" translation of some of the New Testament texts:

"Friends, I had difficulty in knowing how to talk to you. You seemed not to have been affected by the Spirit. Your way of talking was crude. Compared wiith Jesus, you were children at the nursery stage. You still needed breast feeding; you weren't ready for solids. You're not ready yet! You're still squabbling over your toys and competeing for attention. When are you going to grow up? Those rival fan clubs of yours, "I'm in Paul's gang!" or "I'm in Ray's gang", just show how immature you are! What's so big about Ray or Paul? We're only helpers, doing the job God has given us. I put the plants in the pots, and Ray came along with the watering can. It was God who got the plants to grow. The one who pots, and the one who waters, are nothing compared with the gardener who produces the plants. Planting and watering are all part of the process, and those of us who do these elementary tasks get paid for it. You're expected to work as a team in the potting shed. You're God's potting shed!"

How I remember, with an almost overwhelming affection, the time I spent as a small boy working as a team with my grandparents in the vegetable garden of their bungalow in North Walsham, Norfolk whenever we went to stay with them. Just by uttering these few words I can smell, right here and now, the wood of the shed, the paraffin stove and, of course, the earthy smells of their harvest stored there, particularly apples and potatoes.

Now technically, I suppose, a potting shed is a kind of building but when, in the traditional translations, Paul tells me I am "God's building" the feeling this gives me is of a very different kind from what I feel when I begin to hear Paul say to me that I am a "God's potting shed."

To help me express this feeling in words so as to be able to use them with you to suggest a lesson we might learn from them learn I need firstly to turn to our reading from Lucretius' poem "De Rerum Natura" (On the Nature of Things). Lucretius' genius - one which scholars are increasingly beginning to see was key to the development of our modern, scientific world view - was, in part, his ability to find memorable and often witty examples to point again and again to the law-like operation of the natural world. It was this that allowed him to articulate the then almost inconceivable claim how, without the gods, all things have come to be..

Our whole secular educational culture is today, of course, shaped by a general acceptance of the law-like natural order of things. Now, although there is a kind of wonder to be experienced in being able to seeing this law-like stability - my grandparents certainly helped encourage this wonder in me (as did Lucretius) - we know that when seed potatoes are planted all things being equal potatoes will be the eventual harvest of our work of planting and watering. At this fundamental natural level we can be thankful that there were going to be none of the surprises Lucretius humorously lists.

Since those days I have, of course, learnt lessons as influential upon me as those I learnt in grandparent's potting shed in the big university buildings of both academe and the Church. The natural sciences and the Church, in their own very different ways, were desirous as my grandparents to teach me that, although it was hard at times to see the word for the trees, underneath everything there was indeed a reliable, unchanging, law-like predictability to the world. It's just that science wanted to say to me that the law was that of Nature and the Church wanted to say to me it was the law of a certain kind of God; a God who, in the words of the Westminster Confession, was infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His Being. That this is so should come as no surprise because these big buildings are always constructed by institutions deeply committed to passing on their own stable world views in order to make of us good, stable and reliable citizens - people who are not going to be in the business of unnecessary boat rocking. In these institutions there was huge amount invested in getting me and my fellow students to believe that that world was just the way they said it was and to leave it at that.

It should be apparent that lurking in Lucretius' important and, to some extent very comforting insight, there is the possibility that it will tempt some people, not only to say that the natural world is structured according to immutable and ultimately predictable physical laws (something, on the basis of the evidence available to me I subscribe to myself) but so, too, are the worlds of human morality, ethics and politics. This address strongly rebels against this latter tendency but, to get to my rebellion, let's go back now to the potting shed and my educational institutions so as to take another look at what other kinds of potting and watering actually occur there.

Even as my grandparents were using their wooden dibbers to make holes in the earth to plant a seed or bulb with a highly predictable harvest, the dibber that was one of their well-told stories (which included many Biblical tales) was being used to pot-up in my little head countless fertile ideas and values the harvest of which could never bring forth a completely predictable harvest. I know my grandparents fervently hoped that their planting and watering would result in my own life bearing a meaningful family resemblance to their own but, as I grew up, I found that they were both wise enough to know that in countless ways the seed they sowed in me was highly likely to produce in my life something as surprising, unexpected and wholly new as the young man disconcertingly springing out of his perambulator that Lucretius knew could never happen in the natural world. Becoming a musician and a theologian were, for my family, both very unexpected fruits.

I was lucky, too, that in those large university buildings, even as the institution was desperately trying to ensure that as an alumnus I would be a perfect image of that same institution there were one or two of my teachers who, like my grandparents, were willing to accept that the harvest of my own life might produce a very different, unexpected and even new kind of fruit. My becoming a post-modern and post-liberal kind of Christian was certainly an unexpected fruit of the teaching I received in my theological education.

This thought brings me back to St Paul's words about planting and watering in 1 Corinthians. Remember that there everything hinges on his recognition that, in the end, it is not us but God who makes the seed grow. But it is vital to understand that the God of whom Paul speaks is neither the ordered doctrinal God of the Church nor even that of the Deists.

It has long seemed to me that, in its non-institutional forms, the genius and power of the Christian tradition is its constant recognition and acceptance that once the Gospel has been planted its fruit is always going to be unexpected that will for ever be challenging and overturning all ossified human social and intellectual structures whether they be of the family or of the state and religion. Remember with regard to the family, when Jesus' family turn up one day asking to see him he shockingly says: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples he goes on to say: "Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!" (Matthew 12:46-50). With regard to the state and religion, in John we hear him startlingly claim: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19).

Indeed, we should pay very close attention to the historical fact that, whenever the powerful of whatever stripe have begun to believe they had finally got hold of the Christian tradition by the scruff of the neck and could plant the seed of the Gospel in such a fashion that they would be able to predict what its eventual fruit would be like - i.e. little clones of themselves - what actually showed up, time and time again, were people whose reading of the tradition was able to bring the old ossified edifices tumbling down. It's no wonder that the Gospel remains so congenial to radicals, revolutionaries and reformers the world over (theists and atheists alike such as Zizek, Badiou and Critchley) who, in the same rebellious spirit of Jesus, have continually valued life, love, freedom and justice over the death, hatred, imprisonment and injustice that is continually inflicted by the powerful upon the poorest and most dispossessed peoples of our world. We find that the God of the Gospel, far from being an immutable law-driven BEING is instead best thought of as a creative EVENT known to us in acts of life, love, freedom and justice. This event of God regularly shows up (incarnates) in human history and as it outplays in either actual or symbolic interventions in our world the apple carts and money-changing tables of the powerful are upset left, right and centre.

Consequently, I find that I far prefer the image of both myself as an individual Christian and of the Church as a whole as being a rickety old potting-shed rather than the image of a grand and solid building of some description. Why? Well a potting-shed is always constructed and inhabited with a recognition that it is only ever going to be a temporary edifice. A grand building, of whatever kind is, on the other hand, always in danger of making its builders and inhabitants believe it is a reflection, and even seat of a permanent, unchanging power.

To paraphrase Aunt Ada in Stella Gibbon's comic novel "Cold Comfort Farm", to the powerful of the world there is always something nasty lurking in the potting-shed - namely that community of people dedicated to planting and watering the Gospel of life, love, freedom and justice. So I say to you today - dibber in hand - that in places such as this we are indeed God's potting shed and, if we plant and water well and have faith in the event that is God the fruit produced will be as surprising to the world as any young man leaping fully formed from a perambulator.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The passion for unity and it's very real dangers

Nimrod - Gustave Doré
Readings: Genesis 10:6–12 and Genesis 11:1–9

As you heard in our first reading from Genesis Nimrod was a "a mighty one on the earth" and "a mighty hunter before God". Although the Bible never explicitly states this, later tradition believed that Nimrod was the leader of those who built the tower in Babel. The punishment God metered out to Nimrod and his people for this act was the confusion of multiple languages so that they would no longer be able to understand each other. It’s helpful to know that the city’s name, “Babel”, is derived from the Hebrew word “balal” which means to jumble up and the Hebrew verb “lebalbel” means "to confuse.”

In his poem “The Inferno” (part of his longer poem “The Divine Comedy”) the medieval poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) places Nimrod in the ninth and final level of hell, the level reserved for those who had committed the crime of treachery. As Dante passes through this most dreadful of places Nimrod’s only words him are “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”. Virgil, Dante’s guide through Hell explains that “every language is to [Nimrod] the same / as his to others - no one knows his tongue” (60: 80-81). Since the poem’s composition seven hundred years ago many gallons of ink have been used up in the attempt to understand what exactly Nimrod (i.e. Dante) meant by these words. However, to this day Nimrod’s words remain – as Dante intended – unintelligible, an important marker to us of the limits of language.

It is important to see that it is precisely because it is possible to understand that these words are unintelligible that we can then go on to make some intelligible use of them. This particular task is, I think, one especially important for a culture such as our own (Western European and North American) that has too often succumbed to the illusion that it is both possible (and desirable) to create one universal human language that would, as Giorgio Agamben has noted, grant reason unlimited power and capable of explaining everything.

But to get to a better understanding of what one intelligible use of these unintelligible words might be, firstly we need to be clearer about in what might consist Nimrod’s crime. What was his treachery, his act of wilful betrayal that resulted in such an apparently terrible punishment? To answer this I'm going to work backwards on the principle that God would naturally be concerned to do nothing less than that desired by the Mikado in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera of the same name:

The Mikado judging the advertizing quack
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime.

Let’s, for argument’s sake, take it that the punishment delivered at Babel and metered out to Nimrod in Hell did indeed fit the crime and, when understood aright, can help us understand what might be God’s sublime object in enforcing it.

We begin by recalling that Nimrod is known to us firstly as a hunter and not as a builder. What if we take his building of the tower of Babel as simply a side-effect of his hunting? The question that comes to mind when we do this is, for what was he hunting when he built?

Well, Genesis 11 tells us that he and his people were seeking fame (i.e. making a name for themselves) and that amongst them there was a desire to be unified – i.e. from being scattered all over the world and to do this they intended to storm the very gates of heaven.

Nimrod and his people were hunting, as have many before and since those ancient times for lasting power and control. Alas humankind has often thought that our world is best known and possessed, lived in and governed, whenever it can be organised and unified under one common language, whether that language is political, religious, philosophical or scientific or a complex mix of them all.

I hope that here I do not need to elaborate upon the dreadful dangers of following this temptation through to it’s logical human, all too human, end. In our own age the cry of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer” – “One people, one empire, one leader” - should forever stand as a dreadful warning of where this idea of unity can lead.

With these thoughts in mind I suggest that the punishment of Babel can be read as revealing how God (the very possibility of there being something not nothing) will never allow the imposition of any oppressive unity of language, belief and practice, upon the whole but instead constantly ensures that any true articulation of human unity is only done by those who are prepared to accept the “punishment” of Babel – that human life will forever be radically plural and diverse.

Now, to those who remain tempted to hunt down and capture any simplistic kind of unity this babble of countless, diverse voices will always be felt as a cruel punishment and something always to rebel against. However, those who have come to accept this punishment as just, begin to see that perhaps the sublime object of God’s punishment is the articulation of a very different vision of in what consists human unity.
It helps us see that the very presence of so many different languages (most of which we do not speak) forces us to bring to every encounter with another person, religion or culture not a predetermined unifying theory but always a radically open, inquiring attitude – one that that constantly calls upon us to look at what is actually happening before our very eyes rather than what our unifying theories would let us, would have us see.

We must always be willing to see that our own language, as powerful as it is, can never admit us into a full and perfect understanding of another person, religion or culture, or the natural world. The “punishment” instead is a constant encouragement to an ongoing conversation with, and the careful paying attention to, each other.

We help find redemption for Nimrod and offer him a way out of hell (and keep ourselves out of hell) by understanding that his meaningless words remind us of the necessary limits of human language and, therefore human life. They remind us never again to attempt to build with our own language any towering intellectual structure that is part of an attempt to claim the power that belongs only to God. It is perhaps worth noting that, as the theologian Colby Dickinson says:

“It seems that the figure of Nemrod [sic] fascinated Dante because his sin is that of which Dante himself appears to be guilty. Nemrod had sought, and perhaps got too close, to the limits of language, a task that every serious author must confront sooner or later” (Agamben and Theology, p. 7).

In my own way I try to be such a serious author myself (whether this hope is justified is, of course, not ultimately for me to say . . .) and I am acutely aware of how close I come every week in my addresses to committing this Nimrodian sin. Indeed I’m sure I have crossed the line on too many occasions. However, to conclude, I feel impelled to push language to the limit by saying one more thing about human unity. It seems to me that the desire for a meaningful and sustainable human unity (internally and with the divine) is a necessary passion, a veritable fire, burning at the very heart of every truly good and abundant life. But, as with fire, whenever we fail to recognise the need to limit unity’s reach, it will always threaten no longer to be warming and sustaining human life, but to burn it completely to ash.

Perhaps every call for human unity, no matter how well intentioned, should always begin with Nimrod’s warning words, “Raphèl maí amèche zabí almi”. Words with no meaning which mark the very limit of our language and, therefore, life.


James Luther Adams

James Luther Adams (1901-1994) speaks about Babel in his essay The Uses of Diversity (Adams, James Luther: "An Examined Faith – Social Context and Religious Commitment", Beacon Press, Boston 1991, p.291-292). I include the relevant section here for your consideration.

What, then, are the right uses of diversity? This is a large question in its scope. The ultimate ground and goal of diversity are not necessarily evident in the institutional arrangements required by the concept of checks and balances, or by the ideal of equality, or by freedom of inquiry, or by the “laws" of the market. From the Judeo-Christian point of view, the ground and goal of diversity are not in our control. They belong to the divinely given creative and redemptive forces to which the Old and New Testament bear decisive, if not exhaustive, witness, forces that grow not old and that elicit a living faith that is not attached to temporal “securities."
          Within the context of the biblical conception of the creative forces of human existence, the story of the Tower of Babel [Gen. 11] by its negative implications offers a partial index to the nature and justification of diversity. The people who erected the Tower of Babel, according to the legend, wanted thus to build a city with its top in the heavens. In face of this demonic storming of the gates of heaven, the Lord is represented as saying, “Behold, They are one people, and they have all one language; this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." Whatever the original source and import of this legend may have been, it says something essentially theological; it suggests that absolute unity and conformity in the cultural enterprise will present a threat to viable and meaningful human existence, that the absence of diversity (when it is not simply a sign of exhaustion) is a denial of human creatureliness and also of human individuality and freedom. The legend also offers an interpretation of the role of language. “The whole earth," we are told, had only “one language and few words." This paucity of language is apparently taken as a mark of self-destructive tribalism, or at least as a tempting condition for it. The legend seems to assert that the Lord, in order to keep human beings aware of their dependence upon something not their own and in order to make them the more free from the danger of tyranny, had to scatter them and to give them many languages. By implication, then, we may discern in this conception of “scattering” a striking interpretation of human individuality, indeed a theological interpretation of individuation as a category of the human condition. Diversity of place and perspective and language is appropriate for creatures that under God are scattered, individuated, incomplete.